The massive recalls by auto manufacturers in recent years have alerted the public to the idea that their vehicles — even the new models — may not be safe.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration explains that safety defects are flaws in the vehicle or its equipment that create an unreasonable risk because of the design, manufacture or performance.
Safety defects vs. other defects
Some defects are obviously dangerous, such as those that affect steering components, wheels or accelerator controls and cause total loss of control of the vehicle. Others may not ever cause trouble unless the vehicle is in a crash, such as a safety buckle that does not always fully latch, an airbag that deploys at the wrong time or does not deploy at all or a seat back that collapses when subjected to force.
A faulty air or stereo system, body panels susceptible to rust and an engine that uses too much oil are not safety-related. Even though they are defects, they will not result in a safety recall.
NHTSA and manufacturer recalls
Anyone can submit an issue to the NHTSA for investigation. If this reveals a potential defect that affects safety, the manufacturer receives a notice to provide information to help determine whether a defect exists. If it does, then the NHTSA orders the manufacturer to issue the safety recall and notify vehicle owners. The manufacturer must not charge the owners for the correction of the issue.
The manufacturer has the right to challenge the order in federal court, and the NHTSA could go to court to enforce the recall order. However, most manufacturers voluntarily inspect, recall and remedy safety defects. When a defect causes injuries, manufacturers are often liable for the damages.